“A Sentence Within a Sentence”: Solitary Confinement as Torture

Gayatri Devi

Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd, eds. Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. New York: The New Press, 2016. Pp. 226, $29.95 hb.

Rule 43

1. In no circumstances may restrictions or disciplinary sanctions amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The following practices, in particular, shall be

(a) Indefinite solitary confinement;

(b) Prolonged solitary confinement;

(c) Placement of a prisoner in a dark or constantly lit cell;

(d) Corporal punishment or the reduction of a prisoner’s diet or drinking water;

(e) Collective punishment.

2. Instruments of restraint shall never be applied as a sanction for disciplinary offences.

3. Disciplinary sanctions or restrictive measures shall not include the prohibition of family contact. The means of family contact may only be restricted for a limited time period and as strictly required for the maintenance of security and order.

Mandela Rules: United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (United Nations)

On July 5th, 2016, Chelsea Manning, trans woman, American military intelligence analyst, and convicted whistleblower attempted to commit suicide while serving her sentence at the Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas (Goodman). Manning had been imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth, an all-male military prison, where she was part of the general population since her sentencing in 2013 to 35 years in prison for publishing classified government documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Wikileaks. Since her suicide attempt in July, however, Manning has been moved to a mental health observation unit in Leavenworth, where the Army has reportedly told her that she is being investigated “on administrative charges that include having prohibited property in her cell and resisting being moved out of the cell” (Goodman), the “prohibited property” in question being a tube of expired toothpaste and LGBTQ reading material. According to her attorney Chase Strangio of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), if convicted, Manning could face indefinite solitary confinement and additional time in prison. It could also hurt her chance of parole (Goodman).

This is not the first time Manning has faced solitary confinement. When Manning was initially arrested in May 2010 on “aiding the enemy” charges, she was taken to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, and placed into solitary confinement. Within two weeks, Manning had attempted suicide (Manning). Thereafter, Manning was moved to the US Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia, where she was placed in restrictive solitary conditions in a tiny 6×8 foot cell for nine months in pretrial detention. In the Guardian, Manning described her time in solitary confinement thus:

For 17 hours a day, I sat directly in front of at least two Marine Corps guards seated behind a one-way mirror. I was not allowed to lay down. I was not allowed to lean my back against the cell wall. I was not allowed to exercise. Sometimes, to keep from going crazy, I would stand up, walk around, or dance, as “dancing” was not considered exercise by the Marine Corps. (Manning)

Solitary confinement is punishment added on top of the punishment of being in prison. As Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, editors of Hell is a Very Small Place observe, “According to the law, deprivation of freedom alone is supposed to be the price society exacts for crimes committed. . . . Solitary, in particular, operates as a ‘second sentence,’ or a ‘sentence within a sentence,’ doled out without benefit of due process” (10).

Many of the prisoners represented in this anthology have been in solitary confinement for much longer than Manning, and they document conditions and experiences far more inhuman and hopeless than Manning describes. But the experiences described in this collection reveal the source of terror present in an interview Manning gave to Amnesty International recently:

I am always afraid. I am still afraid of the power of government. A government can arrest you. It can imprison you. It can put out information about you that won’t get questioned by the public—everyone will just assume that what they are saying is true. Sometimes, a government can even kill you—with or without the benefit of a trial. (Goodman)

The world of prisoners in solitary confinement appears to be a world of limitless and “arbitrary exercise of power” put upon by prison staff to humiliate, terrorize, and brutalize prisoners for unknown objectives other than punishment, rehabilitation, or reform.

hell_is_a_very_small_place_final.jpgHell is a Very Small Place is divided into two parts. Part 1 contains sixteen essays written by men and women in solitary confinement in American prisons. Part II comprises five essays written by legal scholars, forensic, and prison psychologists, and other professionals who have worked closely with the solitary confinement system in our country. The essays in Part 1 are preceded by an excellent “Introduction” to the history and current status of solitary confinement in the US by editors Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, veteran journalists and investigative reporters and co-directors of Solitary Watch, a web-based project dedicated to uncovering the facts about solitary confinement to the public. According to Solitary Watch, and Casella and Ridgeway, there are approximately 80,000 men, women, and children living in the nation’s “supermax” prisons in solitary confinement. While solitary confinement is practiced all over the world, it is a particularly American invention dating back to the 1790s and the Walnut Street jail in Philadelphia, named for the street on which the prison stood, where sixteen inmates of a new prison block were held in tiny single cells designed to prevent communicating with each other. These individuals were not put to work like other jail inmates; they were left alone to contemplate their crimes. The practice was meant to make them penitent—thus the name of the new prison block, the Penitentiary House (Hell 3). In 1829, Pennsylvania opened Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia where incarcerated men and women were prevented from talking to each other or the guards, fed through a slot on the metal door, forced to wear a mask when taken outside on rare occasions, and allowed to read only the Bible (Hell 4). Eastern State Penitentiary was the precursor of the modern solitary confinement units, security housing units, special management units, special housing units, or the SHU (pronounced “shoe”), the box, the bing, or the block as they are known to the inmates (Hell 7).

Right from its inception, the “Philadelphia System” had its critics, including Alexis de Tocqueville, and Charles Dickens, who described the incarcerated prisoners in the isolated cells as “buried alive” and subjected to “immense amount of torture and agony” through a “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain” (Hell 4). However, despite cautions about its deleterious psychological, biological, and behavioral effects, this social and civil isolation model thrived, and the modern-day “supermax” prison was born during the 1963 “lockdown” of the Marion Penitentiary in Illinois where two corrections officers were killed by inmates, putting the prison on indefinite lockdown (Hell 5). Notorious solitary confinement units such as Alcatraz and Pelican Bay in California, Administrative Maximum ADX in Florence, Colorado, or the “hole” in nearly every regional prison and jail across the nation now represent a new, technologically sophisticated means of total social control with the capacity to “isolate, regulate and surveil more effectively than anything that has preceded them” (Hell 6).

There is no more pressing human rights issue, the editors argue, than solitary confinement. Rather than a last resort reserved for the “worst of the worst,” solitary confinement is the “first resort control strategy” in most
prisons and jails:

Today, incarcerated people can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts but for possessing contraband—including excess quantities of pencils or postage stamps—testing positive for drug use, or using profanity. . . . The system is arbitrary, largely unmonitored, and ripe for abuse; individuals have been sent to solitary for filing complaints about their treatment or for reporting rape or brutality by guards. (Hell 8)

The sixteen essays included in Part I under three broad headings, “Enduring,” “Resisting,” and “Surviving,” describe “life” in solitary confinement. In solitary confinement, prisoners are isolated “in closed cells for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day, virtually free of human contact, for periods of time ranging from days to decades” (Hell 7). They might or might not be taken out to an enclosed concrete “dogrun” outside their cell, the size of a standard parking lot, for recreation for an hour. Their meals are slid through a slot on the metal door. The food might be cooked or raw. Prisoners in solitary might or might not be allowed to keep any personal effects. They do not see the sky, day or night. They do not see wind, air, or trees. Their cells might have no light, or their cells might be lit twenty-four hours a day. They shower and use the toilet in the presence of guards. With rare exceptions, they don’t have books, television, or radio. They don’t have visitors, with rare exceptions. They do not study, or work, or rehabilitate themselves, with rare exceptions. They live in an environment constantly defiled by the violent noise of prisoners kicking in their walls, floors, and doors; where prisoners throw feces at each other and the guards; where prisoners flood their toilets; where prisoners routinely try to commit suicide by cutting their veins, hanging, or strangling themselves; and where prisoners succeed in committing suicide and are carried out in body bags. The sixteen essayists represented in this volume are all either current or former inmates of solitary who have managed to secure the privilege of reading and writing. A few of them have published essays in various publications or on the Solitary Watch website; some have won contests for prison writing such as William Blake, Joseph Dole, or Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, all serving time for murder, but who have managed to educate themselves in solitary confinement and become prolific writers chronicling the world inside solitary confinement units. Others wrote specifically for the anthology. In all cases, the essays are a testament to the role literacy plays in pursuing issues of social justice.

The sixteen essays represent a range of voices: old and young; woman, man, transgender; straight and gay; white, black, Latino, Muslim; murderers, gang members, sex offenders, political prisoners, and terror suspects; convicted, on trial, and professing innocence. The essays focus squarely on the day-to-day “life” in solitary, if we may loosely use that term to describe the duration discussed in them. Thus the real “characters” of these essays are the “solitary confinement units,” their “culture,” and their “officials.” The essays reveal a sordid and inhuman branch of the American penal system, and a singular failure of our democratic processes and institutions.

In “Solitary Confinement and the Law” in Part II of the anthology, Laura Rovner, Clinical Director and Associate Professor at the Civil Rights Clinic of the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, argues that while solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishments,” in most courts that have considered solitary confinement in the context of the Eighth Amendment, the court has deferred to prison officials and their standards of prison’s internal security concerns over that of the constitutional right of the prisoners (183). Rovner points out the Supreme Court’s assertion that “the limits imposed on prisoners’ other constitutional rights do not apply to claims of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ because doing so would thwart that clause’s entire purpose: protecting those who are incarcerated. . . . Accordingly, the Court has held that affording ‘deference to the findings of state prison officials in the context of the Eighth Amendment would reduce that provision to a nullity in precisely the context where it is most necessary’” (183-4). As evidenced by the essays in this collection, the eighth amendment is squarely ignored in the nation’s solitary confinement units.

All of the essays make fascinating reading with writers bringing in a unique perspective on life in solitary confinement. Judith Vazquez, an immigrant from Puerto Rico who moved with her family to Harlem and later settled in New Jersey, was sentenced to thirty years to life for first-degree murder in 1992. Though she has maintained her innocence, Vazquez spent nearly twenty years in solitary before being transferred to a minimum security prison in 2013. In “On the Verge of Hell,” Vazquez documents learning to “cook” the raw hot dogs given to her in solitary by running lukewarm water from the cell sink over the hot dog until the hot dog lost some of its rawness (56). In solitary, after twenty years, Vazquez developed agoraphobia so that she fought with the officers when they came to take her to the minimum security prison: “I did not want to leave my cell. I had become used to this life of solitude. I feared being around people” (59). Vazquez and the other writers featured in this volume repeatedly emphasize their awareness of their own dehumanization, not because of their original crimes, which they are aware of, but of an entirely new level of abjection resulting from solitary confinement. “You should have seen me trying to walk; I was like a nine-month old baby trying to take her first steps. Still I walk funny . . . I felt I was actually dehumanized” (60). Vazquez, who was repeatedly raped by prison guards and forced to abort her pregnancies in the prison cell (56), is one of the prisoners featured in the social justice mural by Vaimona Niumeitolu, a Polynesian artist, at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center at Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (“Political Prisoners”).

Herman Wallace, the author of “Dream House,” spent forty-one years in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola prison where he was initially sent for a 1967 bank robbery. While in prison, Wallace, along with Robert King and Albert Woodfox, created a prison chapter of the Black Panther party; they later came to be known as the “Angola 3” for their jail activism on behalf of the segregated, raped, and tortured incarcerated African American men. In 1972, Wallace and Woodfox were convicted of the murder of a white prison guard and sent to solitary confinement. In 2013, after forty-one years in solitary, a federal judge overturned Wallace’s conviction due to irregularities in the trial, and Wallace was released from prison at the age of seventy-one. Wallace died three days after his release from prison of liver cancer (94). His co-prisoner in solitary, Albert Woodfox, who had insisted on his innocence as well in the 1972 killing of the prison guard, was freed in February 2016 and his conviction overturned after spending forty-three continuous years in solitary confinement, the longest for any incarcerated individual in the United States (Pilkington).

In “Dream House,” a project he did with the multi-media artist Jackie Sumell in his thirtieth year of solitary confinement, Wallace describes the house he would like to live in, “given the fact of my having lived in a cage for thirty years at the time of the offer” (97). Wallace’s “Dream House” was designed over the course of several years and over three hundred pages of letters that Wallace and Sumell wrote each other. Their finished project—The House That Herman Built—became an art exhibit including a scale model of Wallace’s dream house and a full-sized model of his 6×9 cell. Wallace’s house has everything; he has thought out each element of the house, including an escape tunnel and a bunker beneath the pool’s concrete floor: “If attacked, seriously attacked, the house can be set afire with more than enough time for you and your family to escape unharmed” (99).

Solitary confinement becomes a template for the modern police state’s undisclosed power in two pieces in this anthology, and it is perhaps these essays that foreground the element of “total social control” and the “surveillance state” noted earlier in the discussion. These essays pertain to the imprisonment of terror suspects in maximum security extreme solitary confinement units. Uzair Paracha, a Pakistani national and permanent resident arrested in 2003 accused of providing material support to an alleged Al Qaeda operative to enter the United States illegally, recounts his entry into solitary confinement in “Innocent in the Eyes of the Law.” Paracha was put into extreme solitary confinement under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), a special post-911 designation to confine terrorism suspects indefinitely without due process, soon after his arrest in 2003 and moved to the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a federal jail in lower Manhattan. Paracha’s pretrial detention without trial or conviction in solitary confinement at MCC, and post trial conviction in solitary confinement at ADX Florence, the federal government’s only supermax prison in Colorado under SAMs for a total of nine years, highlight the real threat of solitary confinement. Describing in minute detail the complete stripping of his constitutional and human rights under SAMs during his detention and solitary confinement for two years before trial or conviction, Paracha writes:

When I was convicted of every single charge they actually made my SAMs more lenient. I faced the harshest part of my SAMs and incarceration while I was innocent in the eyes of the American law. The fact that they became lenient about a month after my conviction was counterintuitive and made the SAMs look more like pressure tactic and less like any security measures, as was claimed. (53)

Similarly, Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York in “Torture of a Student,” writes about the three-year pretrial detention of her student Syed Fahad Hashmi, a US citizen, a Muslim American, who was arrested on charges of material support to Al Qaeda in 2006. Theoharis describes Fahad’s complete dehumanization and abuse in solitary confinement, again, under SAMs: “After three years of isolation and in poor health, one day before trial and one day after the judge granted the government’s request for an anonymous jury, Fahad accepted a government plea bargain of one count of conspiracy to provide material support” (203). The use of prolonged solitary confinement, Theoharis argues, “helps create the landscape for convictions, because such conditions make it difficult for people to participate in their own defense” (204). Theoharis notes that while Fahad’s abuse in pretrial detention has received little notice inside the United States, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez (who has written the “Afterword” for the book) denounced Fahad’s pretrial solitary confinement “with its oppressive consequences on the psyche of the detainee . . . no more than a punitive measure that is unworthy of the United States as a civilized democracy” (203). Theoharis notes that to many well-meaning Americans, torture is “brutal, gruesome, and loud—extralegal and offshore,” something that happens in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, or CIA black sites. Theoharis reminds us that torture happens in every penitentiary across the country, in Pelican Bay, in Marion, in Terre Haute, in New York City MCC, in ADX Florence; and it happens under the letter of law. Theoharis superimposes Fahad’s incarceration into solitary confinement at the ADX on other human rights abuses perpetrated in the United States:

Like the worst injustices in U.S. history—from slavery to the stripping of Native American land to segregation to Japanese internment—solitary confinement is horribly legal. The legality of the treatment, the rational “necessity” of these measures, soothed and silenced people then, as it does now. But that history provides a sober caution to the bulwark of “national security” we construct through the law today. (207)

In 2013, more than 30,000 prisoners in California’s prisons answered the call of the inmates of Pelican Bay State Prison’s solitary confinement units and took part in the largest prison hunger strike in America that lasted approximately two months. In “A Tale of Evolving Resistance,” Todd Lewis Ashker, one of the architects of the hunger-strike incarcerated in Pelican Bay solitary unit on murder charges for twenty-six years, describes the hunger-strike as a “protracted struggle against a powerful entity with a police state world view” (88). The essays in Hell Is a Very Small Place, like the hunger strike, are a substantial and principled addition to the growing voices challenging the legal edifice under which prisoners are tortured by the state for seemingly no rational objectives through the inhumane institution of solitary confinement.

Works Cited

Casella, Jean, James Ridgeway and Sarah Shourd, editors. Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. New Press, 2016.

Goodman, Amy. “Chelsea Manning Faces Indefinite Solitary Confinement.” Democracy Now, 3 Aug. 2016. Accessed 8 Aug 2016.

Manning, Chelsea. “Solitary Confinement is Torture.” Guardian. 2 May 2016. Accessed 8 Aug. 2016.

Pilkington, Ed. “Albert Woodfox Released from Jail After 43 Years in Solitary Confinement.” Guardian. 19 Feb. 2016. Accessed 8 Aug. 2016.

Political Prisoners Being Honored this Memorial Day in Washington DC.” Sputnik News. 30 May 2016. Accessed 8 Aug. 2016.

Solitary Watch. Accessed 8 Aug. 2016.

United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules).” penalreform.org. Accessed 8 Aug. 2016.

Gayatri Devi is Associate Professor of English at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. 


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